THE ERDOGAN vs. GUELEN COMPLEX: Turkey, US avoid major crisis, but ties still on tightrope

ANKARA – Hürriyet Daily News – 23-12-2013 – Turkish and American diplomats rush to put new diplomatic fires caused by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after the Turkish leader threatened to expel Envoy Ricciardone from Turkey

Turkish and U.S. diplomats narrowly avoided a major crisis over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s implication that Washington’s ambassador could be expelled over provocative actions, but bilateral ties are still on a tightrope as government officials and pro-government media seem unlikely to cease a campaign against “external forces” behind an ongoing graft probe. Washington has seriously warned Ankara that a repetition of such a smear campaign against the U.S. and its diplomats could affect bilateral relations, the Hürriyet Daily News has learned.  Ties between the two allies were in dire straits since spring over a number of disagreements on major foreign policy issues, with Syria at the top of the list.

The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) brutal crackdown on the Gezi Park protestors in June and the inclinations toward more authoritarian rule have put additional fuel on bilateral relations. Only five days after the huge graft probe began, some pro-government media hit almost the same headline on Dec. 21 and claimed that Envoy Francis Ricciardone told a group of EU ambassadors that “You will watch the fall of an empire” on the very first day of the police’s corruption operation. Although the embassy denied categorically the reports, Erdoğan strongly targeted the ambassador at a rally in Samsun.

“In recent days, interestingly, some ambassadors have been engaging in provocative actions. I am calling out to them from Samsun: Do your own business,” he said. “We do not have to keep you in our country.”

US Ambassador adopts mince tone

After Erdoğan’s harsh remarks, Ricciardone issued a written statement to once again deny the reports and urged that “nobody should put Turkey-U.S. relations in danger with unfounded claims.”

In the meantime, hectic diplomatic traffic was carried out between the diplomats of the two countries under the direction of Ricciardone and Feridun Sinirlioğlu, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry. Washington expressed its deep disturbance with both media reports and Erdoğan’s accusations against its envoy and demanded that a rectification be made given the impression given by the statements.

The Foreign Ministry subsequently released a statement, noting the ministry’s satisfaction with the U.S. ambassador’s explanation. “We find the U.S. ambassador’s statement sufficient. There is no plan to summon him to the ministry on the issue,” read the statement. In addition to the ministry’s statement, AKP spokesperson Hüseyin Çelik said, “We have to trust in the statement [of the U.S. ambassador].”

Both statements were regarded as “satisfactory” by Washington as well but it underlined once again that the U.S. has nothing to do with Turkish internal affairs and that it does want to be “drawn into a family fight.” After the statements issued by Ricciardone, the ministry and Çelik, Erdoğan did not repeat his claims about the envoy. Yesterday, Erdoğan referred to international plans against his government but did not give any country’s name. For many in Ankara, the government’s decision to step back in this case is a result of its evaluation that confronting Washington in this period would not be wise for the government. In the meantime, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his American counterpart, John Kerry, exchanged a phone call late Dec. 20, but the Turkish minister reportedly did not touch on Ricciardone’s “provocative actions” during the call.